Tag Archives: Game Mechanics


“Dark Night Dan settled into the recess of the window, knowing there was not long to wait. If his informer was right, the enemy saboteur would try to destroy the secret war material tonight. Dan would be ready in the fog to meet him…”

Dragon Magazine, Issue 47, Pg. 29

I love going through old issues of Dragon; you never know what you’re going to find. Recently I came across an interesting gem in issue #47, a complete (if rough) pulp-hero role playing game by David “Zeb” Cook called Crimefighters.

It wasn’t uncommon for games to be published in Dragon, and some were quite fun. Games like King of the Tabletop and Clay-o-Rama even saw repeated play at our gaming table and are worth posts of their own. However the idea of TSR publishing a complete role playing system through Dragon is something I never expected. Yet there it is, March 1981, and it wasn’t a small affair. The rules consist of 17 pages, with an additional four page adventure, all illustrated by Jeff Dee. This was followed by a one page article by Bryce Knorr about the history of pulps. That’s a significant page count for a 78 page magazine.

So how is the game?

It’s a fun and interesting read and it certainly looks playable and from a history standpoint it is especially fun. I doubt Cook had more than a month or so to throw the system together and I’d be surprised if it had more than a couple playtests before it went into the magazine. Yet despite its rushed feel it’s a complete game and looks like something you could jump into and have fun with. If my friends and I had owned Issue #47 I am sure we would have played the heck out of Crimefighters.

That being said, the system doesn’t hold up well by today’s standards. I have plenty of games on my shelf that do a better job, but for 1981 it was virtually alone in the pulp niche. TSR’s Gangbusters wouldn’t be published for another year. Top Secret was already on the market and was certainly adaptable, but it didn’t truly delve into pulp heroes until Top Secret S/I’s Agent 13 Sourcebook in the late 80’s.

The mechanics are an odd mix of old design tropes and new ideas, with a few interesting gems worth looking at. Character attributes are rolled randomly using a percentage system, then modified based on the roll. The modifications improve your stats proportionally, improving low rolls more than high rolls. The result is that no matter how bad you roll, you will have above-average abilities suitable for a pulp hero. Another interesting design choice is that your attributes include separate stats for your right and left hand accuracy, meaning your rolls determine if you are right or left handed, or ambidextrous.

A fun attribute is Presence, the ability of the character to influence others through charm or intimidation. At the cost of 20 points from their Willpower attribute a PC can roll against their Presence stat to force their will on an NPC. This is a delightfully appropriate Pulp idea.

Characters also have the chance to possess a mystical ability, such as hypnotism or invisibility. The chance of having such a power is slim, though a character may acquire one in the campaign by spending enough experience points. Some of these powers require the expenditure of Willpower (as with Presence) or Hit Points to activate, reflecting the mental exertion used to, “cloud men’s minds,” as The Shadow would say. The mechanics for using such powers are simple and understandable and back in the day when we were playing several times a week the acquisition of such abilities would have been a major character goal. Though were I to play Crimefighters today I’d let each player start with a randomly assigned power.

The game is skill based and here we find another interesting idea. Not all skills require a roll to be successful, for example if you have the Mechanic skill you can fix a car engine. The GM decides how long it will take based on the difficulty of the job and materials on hand, but no roll is required. You WILL get that car running eventually. We see this in modern game design, but in the early 80’s this was an unusual idea.

Combat is deadly. “In general, combat is short and quick, with the side acting most decisively and quickly getting the victory.” This is a game where you want to control the fight if you plan to survive. Players should use their wits, as on average they’ll have from 15-25 hit points, while the bullet from a .45 will do 2-8 damage. Frequent or prolonged fights are going to go against the unprepared PC.

The procedure for combat is intriguing, but is also one of the places that the game hasn’t aged well. Combat starts by determining the distance, then the players state their actions, then initiative is rolled, then actions are taken. The way actions work is unique and while I’m not sure it would work well in practice, it’s fascinating to consider. Each action takes a number of seconds to accomplish. The player can declare as many or as few actions as they wish, adding up the required seconds for the string. Once declared the player must follow through with all of them or cancel the sequence, they cannot change the plan. So a player may choose to declare a long string of actions and hope to save a few precious seconds overall, or they may declare a short action hoping to stay more flexible.

There are no classes in the traditional sense, but the character receives experience based on a role determined by the players. Defenders gain double experience for each criminal they bring to justice, but none for criminals who are killed. Avengers gain only half experience for criminals sent to jail, and then only if they confess. It’s implied, but not stated, that they get normal experience for killed criminals. Pragmatists gain normal experience for criminals sent to jail and half experience for killed criminals.

The rules include a short but solid section on creating pulp adventures and how it differs from the traditional location (i.e. dungeon) settings that gamers would be used to.There are also rules for using Random Encounters, which are not tied to the adventure plot. The value of including these in a mystery-based game seems dubious and more like another artifact from D&D, but it does give me something new to consider.

The introductory adventure is a solid, fun mystery that comes complete with a city map and a couple floor plans. It is quite suitable for anyone looking to run a short game and worth a look.

My final verdict? While the game would have definitely been worth playing in the early 80’s, I would not run it today. The real joy is in the reading, seeing what David Cook could come up with in a short amount of time, seeing the transitional design elements and recognizing the concepts that would show up in later games, and the fun of knowing that at one time TSR would devote that much space in Dragon to give its readers a complete role playing game.

Crimefighters is a delightful artifact. If you want to check it out for yourself, there is a link from the game’s Wikipedia page where you can download the rules in .PDF format.



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Observations about Character Creation

One of the fun things about running Ravenloft again was that I got to revisit AD&D’s character creation rules for the first time in years. From this I learned, or re-learned, quite a few things.

Because the game started with only four players I pre-generated the characters on the high end of the level range for Ravenloft, giving them all 100,000 XP. This put the characters at level seven or eight. As I expected the fighters and clerics were seventh and the thieves were level eight, but I was surprised to see that magic users were also level eight. I’d expected them to also be level seven, but it turns out that the experience curve for magic users shifts after level six. Instead of gaining levels slower than fighters, high level magic users advance noticeably faster.

Multi-classed characters also surprised me. When we first started out, all around 13 years old, we didn’t really get how multi-classing worked. Having different rules for multi-classing spread out over the Players Handbook and the poor quality of the index certainly didn’t help. (In 1st edition the Dungeon Master’s Guide held the index for both the DMG and PHB, and it’s not very comprehensive.) So we rarely created such characters and we were quite happy with single class characters.

In 2015 we have the power of Google to help us. For the first time I can say that I understand how multi-classing and dual-classing works. One of the misconceptions we had was that multi-class characters would fall behind single classed characters, but in creating several of them I found them to be about one level lower than their single class counterparts. I even realized that for 100,000 XP you could create a decent 1st edition Bard, though I decided not to create one of those oddities for this game.

The multi-class rules also gave me some insight into how racial level limits do work out as a game balancer, at least in a game designed for characters to max out in their teens. However I still find them distasteful both from a thematic standpoint and from a game play standpoint. For the fighting classes the rate of advancement should keep the gap from getting too extreme between a level capped demi-human and a human character, and the difference in hit points and tables isn’t so drastic that magic items can’t balance things out. It’s a bigger issue for spellcasters, as many more powerful spells will be blocked out of their reach. It would also seem to block them out of the iconic high level modules, like Tomb of Horrors. I should look at the pre-generated characters for those modules and see if there are any demi-humans on the roster in those adventures.

I also took a fresh look at the monk class. Now, I’ve never been a fan of the monk class; it doesn’t seem to fit with the implied settings of AD&D and I strongly suspect someone was watching too much of David Carradine in Kung Fu when they decided to include it in the Players Handbook. However I’ve been watching a lot of Shaw Brothers movies recently and figured I’d give it a look. What I found is that the class looks much more playable than what I remembered from when I was a kid. While monks have lower hit points than other classes their wide variety of powers and abilities does help make up for it and their innate armor class and hand-to-hand attacks are not insignificant. Add in a few magic items and a 1st edition monk should be able to hold his or her own with the other core classes. It left me wondering why I thought the monk class was so under-powered back when I was playing AD&D regularly and I think it’s largely because we played in a “high magic” world, where characters had a lot of magic items and in that setting the advantages of a monk are blunted while their weaknesses are accentuated.

Heh. “high magic”. Okay, I’ll be honest; back in our early gaming days we were completely Monty Haul. We even joked about it, saying that people needed to make a saving throw vs blindness if anyone cast Detect Magic on the party. Occasionally we’d decide to take it down a notch and run games where even the humble +1 sword was a weapon to be treasured, but sooner or later power levels would creep back up. When I started playing again as an undergrad my group used a more measured amount of magic, but by then the image of the monk as underpowered was set in our minds. Besides, if we wanted to do a martial artist we had our copies of Oriental Adventures to draw on.

None of my players decided to take the monk out for a spin for Ravenloft, but it’s given me the desire to get one out in the field and see what they can do in actual play.

Since I started playing D&D again with the OSR movement I’ve been playing retro-clones of Basic. This was my first re-visitation of AD&D and it was a lot of fun, both to generate the characters and to run the game. I’ll be starting up a new campaign soon and for that I’m going back to a basic game using Labyrinth Lord with some imported rules from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but I can definitely see myself running or playing another AD&D or OSRIC game in the future.

And now that I think of it, porting the monk class into a basic game would be a snap. Heck, Labyrinth Lord’s Advanced Edition Companion includes a monk class…




Posted by on November 5, 2015 in Fantasy, Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming


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Weighty Matters

One of the fun things about the OSR is that it has inspired me to pull out the old books and try to figure out why rules were designed the way they were.

Case in point, why did D&D use gold pieces as a standard of weight? Why not use a real world standard, like pounds or kilograms?

The AD&D Player’s Handbook specifies that encumbrance is measured in Gold Pieces, with ten gold pieces equal to one GP of weight. One GP of weight is roughly equal to one pound, but it isn’t a direct comparison. The Dungeon Master’s Guide clarifies that encumbrance is not a true measure of weight, but an abstraction of weight and volume:

“Many people looking at the table will say, ‘But a scroll doesn’t weigh two pounds!’ The encumbrance figure should not be taken as the weight of the object – it is the combined weight and relative bulkiness of the item.”

-DMG, Pg. 225

This is a reasonable, if fiddly, explanation for why D&D wouldn’t simply use standard measures of weight. However the reason for the Gold Piece standard goes deeper than just being an abstraction of weight and volume, its purpose is also to re-enforce the focus that early D&D was about finding treasure. The Player’s Handbook section on Encumbrance states:

“Lastly, as the main purpose of adventuring is to bring back treasure, provision for carrying out a considerable amount of material must also be made.”

-PHB, Pg. 101

Mentzer’s Basic edition also ties the importance of treasure to the mechanic of encumbrance:

“One coin of treasure, whatever the type (gp, ep, and so forth) weighs about 1/10 pound. Since coins are the commonest of treasures, the coin (not the pound) becomes the simplest unit of weight. From now on, the weight of all treasures, equipment, and so forth will be measured in coins, abbreviated cn.”

-Basic D&D Player’s Manual, Pg. 61

Dungeons and Dragons is full of seemingly arbitrary rules, but it’s fun to dig back into half-remembered concepts and discover the method behind the madness; that they were meant to re-enforce the vision that Gygax and Arneson had for the game.

 Encumbrance“Encumbrance? Oh… I didn’t think we were using those rules…”


Posted by on August 11, 2015 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming


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It Came from the Blogosphere!

Several very cool things have popped up in my RSS feed lately.

  • The Hack & Slash blog has done an impressive analysis of the various treasure types in the 1st Edition Monster Manual that discusses what each type consists of, what types of monsters are assigned to them, and what the treasure types say about the ecology of the creatures involved. It’s an impressive bit of analysis that’s both informative and interesting to read. The follow up post about how to use treasure hoards in adventure design is also quite good.
  • Dyson’s Dodecahedron has announced that he’s hit his goal of $300 per update via Patreon. Dyson has always offered his maps for personal use, but hitting this goal means he’s making them freely available for commercial use (with proper attribution of course). That’s both cool and generous. Dyson’s maps are excellent and if more people start using them in commercial adventures? That’s a win for everyone. It’s also neat to see someone really leveraging Patreon to do what they love and give back to the OSR community.
  • The amazingly cool Ask About Middle-Earth Tumblr was involved in helping fact check the latest CGP Grey video that does an excellent job of summing up how the rings of power work. I’ve become quite a fan of the Ask About Middle-Earth blog (along with a gazillion other people) and the author’s sense of fun and passion for Tolkien’s works always shows through in her work. Check out her site and definitely watch the video.
  • Lastly, I saw the image below on the Jewel in the Skull Tumblr page and it just makes my Saturday morning cartoon soul just sing. If my Google-Fu is accurate, these links go to the inker and colorist for this geekishly wonderful cross-over.




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Death and Failure

Sometimes I think that the OSR has become too fixated on death.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of player character death. Or more specifically, I’m a fan of the threat of PC death. The constant danger of PC death is a cornerstone of OSR gaming, it gives the game an edge and adds weight to the choices players make.

However, both as a player and a dungeon master, sometimes I want characters with a little more durability. Maybe this comes from the natural evolution of the game, as the characters reach higher levels and gain access to magic powerful enough to keep them alive. Sometimes I want a break from the fragile low level characters. Sometimes even an OSR gamer wants to inject some, dare I say it, story into the game and to indulge the players who want an overly long and convoluted backstory. Sometimes I even want to have a plot framework that hinges on the PCs, a plot that would fall apart if they meet their ends too soon.

Sometimes I just want to give the PCs a better chance of survival.


I’m not talking about the complete removal of death as a threat and I’m certainly not talking about letting story take over the game, I’m talking about running a game that gives the PCs a better chance. Maybe it’s luck points, or magic items, or giving players at zero hit points a save vs death. Something that gives them an edge.

Can a game like that still be considered OSR?

Yes, because what creates the tension we like so much isn’t actually the threat of death, but the threat of failure.

Great fun can be had in seeing how PCs deal with failure. What happens when Modred captures the Grail, or the city falls to the orc hordes?

What happens is the next adventure.

Back in my undergrad days we had a long running hybrid 1st/2nd Edition game where our (surviving) characters had reached levels high enough that not much short of a total party kill would keep us down. We’d slugged our way through many tough campaigns until we were a well armed and battle hardened team. Our latest campaign had us fighting to prevent an elder god from being unleashed on the kingdom.

We battled our way to the summoning chamber deep in the heart of a lost city. The final guardians stood between us and closing the gate and saving the realm. The battle was joined and everything fell apart.

Good tactics on the villains’ part and merciless dice rolls proved to be our undoing and we watched in horror as the gate exploded open. We escaped the city and fled the kingdom as the elder god’s rot overtook the whole realm.

That was it. The campaign was over and we’d failed. The kingdom was lost, untold innocents were dead, and a massive evil threatened to expand its reach further across the Prime Material plane.

It… was… awesome!

The next gaming session, our characters reached sanctuary and began plotting our revenge. The campaign against the elder god took us through the next semester.

Every player was emotionally invested in the game due to that failure, an investment that was deeper because our characters survived. That failure bound us to the game in a way that would not have existed if we’d died and rolled up new characters. Our characters had a score to settle, we as players had a score to settle.

I’m not going to be hanging up my killer DM mantel anytime soon, but understanding that death is only one facet of game tension opens up a world of possibilities. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you let a character live once in a while.

Just don’t ever hand them a win.


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Posted by on August 19, 2014 in Fantasy, Gaming


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Call of Trekthulhu

Space, the final frontier.

These are the voyages of the starship Exeter, whose five year mission is to seek out new worlds and new civilizations.

And probably blow them up.

Last year I decided to run a few Star Trek games and I recently came across my notes. They were meant to be episodic one-off games, allowing us to drop them in whenever we wanted a break in our usual routine and it worked out quite nicely.

In designing the game I took a lot of inspiration from Where No Man Has Gone Before, an excellent little rules light home grown game you can download from the author’s blog. There are a lot of good source ideas packed into the tight rules set. I also made good use of the free paper Star Trek minis you can download from the page. The figures were designed by David Okum of the Okum Arts Tumblr and it was my first exposure to his work, but not the last.

While I raided the document for source, I decided to go a different direction for mechanics and kit bash Call of Cthulhu for my rules set. I chose CoC because my players are old hands at the game, because the percentile based skill system is flexible and easy to bolt on to, because the magic point system is adaptable for special abilities, and because I wanted the sanity mechanic it offered. Sanity was important not because I would be putting the crew up against the Elder Gods, though I didn’t rule it out, but because in the old series we often saw characters pushed past the breaking point. My game was set in the Original Series era and I wanted to make sure that this was part of the game’s feel.

Because we are all Star Trek geeks I wanted to base the game in Trek lore. So the back story is that Starfleet recovered and refit the U.S.S. Exeter, a Constitution class starship that was left adrift after the episode The Omega GloryYes, that horrible episode where the writers must have failed their Sanity roll more than the Exeter’s captain did.

“Ay plegli ianectu flaggen, tupep like for stahn.”

-The Omega Glory

When we began character creation I had the players draw a card at random, each card had one of the department heads listed on it. This made short work of deciding who would be captain, science officer, etc… I also allowed players to choose any established Federation races from the Original or Animated series.

Soon we had our crew; an Andorian weapons officer, a Vulcan chief engineer, the requisite human Dr. McCoy analog, and an Iotian science officer (the gangster culture from A Piece of the Action. His uniform had pin stripes). The crew was under the leadership of Captain Ivan Kirkov.

Acts like Kirk, sounds like Chekhov. You’ve got to love it.

I wrote up several new rules for the game. One area I didn’t get into was starship combat. Before Wrath of Khan, starship combat was not a major factor in Star Trek and I figured I could wing it if needed.


Fractalbat’s House Rules for Star Trekthulhu

RolesThese function as Occupations from Call of Cthulhu. New skills are listed in italics.

Science Officer

Astronomy, Biology, Chemestry, Computer Programing, Library Use, Other Language, Persuade, Physics, Psychology, Sensors any two of the following skills; Antrhopology, Archaeology, Geology, History, Medicine, Natural History, Subspace Communications, one other skill as a personal specialty.

Medical Officer

Biology, Chemistry, Computer Programing, First Aid, Latin, Medicine, Natural History, Pharmacy, Psychoanalysis, Psychology.


Chemistry, Computer Programing, Electrical Repair, Geology, Library Use, Mechanical Repair, Physics, Sensors, Starship Engineering, Subspace Communications, Starship Shields, Starship Weapons, one other as a personal specialty.

Security/Weapons Officer

Climb, Conceal, Dodge, First Aid, Grapple, Handgun, Hide, Listen, Martial Arts, Punch, Sneak, Spot Hidden, Starship Shields, Starship Weapons, two others as personal specialties

Starship Captain  

Bargain, Fast Talk, Handgun, Persuade, Psychology, Spot Hidden, Any four New Skills and any two additional skills as personal specialties.


New Skills:

Computer Programing – Base 00%  This is the ability to program or reprogram computers. It is not needed for operation of computers. This skill may be unnecessary if a friendly artificial intelligence is involved.

Starship Engineering – Base 00%  This is the skill of repairing and modifying the large and complex systems that run starships, starbases, and other large scale systems. It may also be used to boost power to other systems such as shields, sensors, and weapons.

Subspace Communications – Base 15%  This is the skill of operating and monitoring subspace radio messages. It may be used to jam transmissions, to break through jamming, to send encoded transmissions, and to conceal or detect subspace radio activity.

Sensors – Base 15% This is the skill of using and interpreting the results of sensor scans. It may also be used to operate a scientific tricorder or a medical tricorder with a -15% penalty.

Medicine – Base 05%  Same as normal. If the user has access to a medical tri-corder or other medical supplies the medic can heal 1d10 health. This skill also allows use of a medical tri-corder which acts as a portable med-bay for all but the most serious conditions. A scientific tri-corder may be used for diagnosis at -30%, but gives no additional treatment abilities.

Starship Weapons – Base 10%  This skill allows the use of a starship’s weapons systems, including phasers and photon torpedoes. It may be used for various special maneuvers, such as using phasers for targeting specific systems or to stun entire city blocks.

Starship Shields – Base 10%  This skill is used to adjust and reinforce shields. On a successful roll a player may restore a shield’s score by 1d10, if the player rolls under half their skill the boost is 2d10.

Starship Manuvering – Base 05%  This is the skill of moving a starship at sub-warp speeds. It may be used to gain an advantage in combat, avoid hazards in space, stabilize a ship, or any other tasks that require steering the ship.

Starship Astrogation – Base 05%  This is the skill of plotting a course through warp. It is also used to boost warp speed and maintain the warp field at emergency speeds, and any other tasks involving the warp drive.


Aiding Other Stations:

A starship operates based on the quality of a crew’s teamwork, not on the individual prowess of its members. An officer in one department may use their skill to boost the skill rolls of another department. To do this the player gives an explanation of how they wish to help out and make a roll on the appropriate skill. A successful roll gives a +5% bonus. Succeeding by half or more gives a +10%. An impaling roll gives +15%.

For example, a Federation starship is in combat with an Orion pirate. The chief engineer increases power to the ship’s shields, giving the navigator a +5% to boost shields. The captain uses his own targeting skills to boost the weapons officer’s targeting skill by +5%.


Special Abilities:

Special abilities are used by characters to pull off amazing feats within their specialty. They rely on a character’s force of will to achieve success and cost magic points to use. Failing any special ability roll shakes a character’s confidence and costs 1d4 SAN. Use of a special ability has a base 10% chance of working with an additional +10% for every magic point spent on the roll. The player must describe what they are doing. Each crew role has one special ability associated with it.

“This is the Captain Speaking.” Starship captains are a rare breed, with a wide breadth of experience both technical and social. A starship captain’s words can snap a person out of shock, direct the actions of an entire crew, persuade a mass of people to a different course of action, and seduce a high priestess. At its core it is a super communication skill. The ability must be based on a reasonable line of thought. For example, it could be used to persuade a torch bearing mob to pause and listen to new evidence that a monster is innocent of the crimes it is accused of. It could not be used to convince the mob to jump off a cliff. It could be used to trick a Klingon captain into being overconfident and making a bad move, but not for him to break off hostilities and depart peacefully.

“Invert the Polarities in the Tacyon Wave” Science officers have a gift for coming up with amazing solutions in a short amount of time. They find ways to punch holes in unbreachable barriers, scan unscannable objects, and disrupt powerful streams of energy. This ability is how they do that. The player must come up with the technobabble to make this ability work.

“I’m Giving Her all She’s Got!” Engineers are miracle workers. This is the ability to accomplish the impossible in a short amount of time. Examples include reinforcing the hull when the ship is about to break up, restarting the warp drives when they’re offline, or getting one more blast out of the phasers even though the banks have been destroyed.

“I’m a Doctor, not a Floor Wax!” Chief medical officers have astonishing powers of healing. This ability is a hyper-version of the Medicine skill. It could be used to revive someone recently killed (but not disintegrated), find a cure for an incurable disease, or discover the vector used by a plague.

“Respect the Red Shirt” You don’t get to be a chief of security in Starfleet without some amazing resilience. Using this ability allows the player to soak one damage point per magic point spent. This ability may be used after the damage roll has been made.


Other Abilities:

Vulcan Nerve Pinch: On a successful grapple a Vulcan can force a target to make a resistance roll between the Vulcan’s POW and the target’s current HP. If the Vulcan wins the target falls unconscious. The target must have a physiology reasonably similar to Vulcans and each use costs four magic points.

Vulcan Mind Meld: The ability for a Vulcan to read minds. The target must be restrained or otherwise not physically resisting. A target may mentally resist, in which case a POW vs POW roll is required for the Vulcan to force its way into the target’s mind.  The Vulcan may read the target’s mind and may plant information there. Using a Vulcan Mind Meld costs the Vulcan six magic points and both the Vulcan and the target lose 1d10 SAN if the target resists and 1d4 SAN if the target is willing.



Phasers:  Phasers are beam weapons that use the pistol skill to fire. They do 1d6 damage per level of power and if they reduce a target to more than -5 HP the target is disintigrated.

A phaser may also be set to stun. A target can resist being stunned by making a resistance roll using CON against the phaser’s damage roll.  A phaser set to stun may also be set to wide dispersal in order to stun multiple targets. Divide the total damage done by the number of targets hit and have each target make a resistance roll.

Phasers set to a tight beam may be used as a cutting tool or with wide dispersal it may be used to warm rocks for heat. A phaser set to overload will explode in 1d6 rounds doing Xd6 damage where X is the weapon’s maximum power setting.

There are two types of phasers. A phaser I is easier to conceal and is often carried when subtlety is needed. The maximum power of a phaser I is five. A phaser II is larger than a phaser I and has a maximum power setting of 10. Disruptors are effectively the same as phasers, only without the stun setting.

Tri-Corder: A tri-corder is a portable scanning and tool device. There are two variations, the science tri-corder and the medical tri-corder. Using a tri-corder is almost like having a full ship’s station at your disposal.

Communicator: A communicator is capable of reaching ships in orbit and other crew members anywhere on a planet. They may be used as a homing beacon.

Transporters: Matter transporters allow the teleportation of individuals and equipment over long distances. If there are transporter pads on both sides of the transport it improves the chances of cutting through any interference. Transporters cannot go through shields.

Starship Phasers: These are powerful and versatile beam weapons. They may be used for general ship-to-ship attacks, to target specific systems, and may be used for orbital bombardment. Phasers cannot be used at warp speed.

Photon Torpedoes: Starships carry a limited supply of photon torpedoes. They are not as versatile as phasers and are unable to target specific sections of a ship. They do large amounts of damage in a single hit and may be configured for use at warp speed.

These rules haven’t been extensively play tested, but they got the job done. If you use them, in whole or as inspiration, I would love to hear about it. If you’ve ever kit bashed your own rules for Star Trek I’d love to hear about that too!



Posted by on May 7, 2014 in Gaming, Science Fiction


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Natural Disasters in Games, Pt. 2

Where were we?

Ah yes! Natural disasters.

One of the most important decisions to make when adding a natural disaster to your game is how it will be unleashed. Building tension is a big part of the fun and how you trigger the calamity will determine the flavor and tempo of the game.

Trigger Points – The disaster doesn’t strike until the characters reach a predetermined point. For example, reaching the last chamber in a dungeon. This is how most computer games handle it and it’s an acceptable gaming trope.

It’s also lazy. An adventure designed this way leaves the disaster sitting there, waiting for the PC’s arrival, and it doesn’t matter how quickly or slowly the players make their progress. It can still be a fun ride, but when the players see it they will recognize that their actions had nothing to do with it.

I am reminded of the Dungeons & Dragons adventure B3 – Palace of the Silver Princess, where no matter when they enter a specific room the party is just in time to stop a magical ritual. It’s still a fun set piece but you wonder what they’ve been doing while the party mapped out the rest of the dungeon.

This setup is good for natural disasters you can’t see coming, like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Though with a little effort and a dose of magic or super science any disaster will work. Also, despite my misgivings about this method, it works with just about any type of game you want to run. It is particularly good for games with a clearly defined objective that will decide success or failure and it gives the GM control over when the disaster will strike. This is helpful if you’re running a plot-driven game.

But still, this is my least favorite method.

The MacGuffin – A variation on Trigger Points is the MacGuffin. This only takes a little more effort but is more engaging for the players. In this situation the natural disaster is omnipresent but held at bay by some force. For example, an eruption is held off by a ritual that keeps the volcano god asleep, or the typhoon can’t reach the harbor while the station’s energy screens are up. The MacGuffin could be an object, a ritual, a computer program, or a person, as long as it is something that the characters can interact with.

In this case the actions of the adventurers are the direct cause of unleashing nature’s fury, perhaps by grabbing a golden idol or killing a temple guardian. Mechanically it’s not that different from using a trigger point, but the nod to player agency makes a difference. However the GM should be prepared for the players not to trigger the natural disaster, or for them to find a way to circumvent the trigger. The GM should reward exceptionally clever players who avoid the unavoidable disaster.

Remember, no plot survives first contact with PCs.

Like the Trigger Point, the MacGuffin is a flexible device. However the GM does need to provide a link between the MacGuffin and the natural disaster, otherwise it’s just another Trigger Point.

Randomized Doom – At the other end of the spectrum the natural disaster can be based on random rolls. In cases like this I recommend a progressive system, where each failed roll builds towards the final cataclysm. This also lets you build tension as you describe how the storm is rising or the tremors are growing stronger.

There are two ways that come to mind for using a random system. The first is where the disaster will provide complications and threats for the characters but not bring the adventure to a halt. This works for objective based games, where the adventure hinges on obtaining an item, defeating an enemy, or crossing through a danger zone. It’s better suited for storms, wild fires, or floods and would not work as well with a volcano or earthquake. In this case the disaster makes things more dangerous, but the characters can still achieve their goal.

The other way is to make the disaster a time bomb. This works well with the cataclysmic disasters and is ideal for a good old fashioned dungeon crawl. Use this method for a game that isn’t about reaching an objective or saving the kingdom, but about the players pushing their luck and risking their lives to grab as much treasure as possible before the hammer falls.

For example, a sleeping volcano has rumbled back to life and the tremors have broken the seals on an ancient temple. Legends say it is filled with countless riches and unknown dangers. When the volcano erupts it will destroy everything, but if you act quickly and luck is on your side then fame, power, and glory will be yours.

It sure is getting hot in here, but maybe just one more chamber…

Timed, Blind – In practice there isn’t a lot of difference between a randomized disaster and one on a hidden time limit. The GM has control over the length of the gaming session and the players can assume that they have a reasonable amount of time before the disaster strikes, but beyond that the same basics apply. The players can try to guess how much time they have left based on clues from the GM and reading his or her intentions, but they are still pushing their luck.

Randomized Doom is a natural disaster game of craps, the Bind Timer is poker.

Timed, Known – Taking the “time bomb” idea quite literally, you put the disaster on a countdown. With a known time limit the players are aware of how long they have before the disaster strikes and can act accordingly. Decisions are made based on how many precious minutes they have left and unexpected problems will drive the players to new levels of urgency. Side goals must be weighed, a process which itself costs time. Analysis Paralysis becomes a more dangerous enemy than any monster.

You now have 30 minutes to reach maximum safe distance.

Known time limits are good for the disasters you can track, particularly things like hurricanes and sand storms, though more cataclysmic disasters like asteroid strikes can also be used. This setup is well suited to tournament play or any other situation where the session is limited to a specific length. It’s also a good match for “caper” adventures. Anything that has your players humming the Mission: Impossible music should be right at home with this setup.

How you implement natural disasters will determine the atmosphere of the game. Is it a race against time? A tense gamble? Or a brooding menace hanging over everything else. Whichever you choose, it can add a refreshing challenge to your games.

I think we stayed a few rounds too long.


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Of Spells and Nails

Through the Chaotic Neutral nature of Facebook I came across this tutorial for imprinting text onto your fingernails posted on the Glitter Fingersss Tumblr site.

This has some real gaming potential.

Imagine an order of magic users or clerics who seek out scrolls. Members of this order take the scrolls and use this technique to transfer the spells they contain onto their fingernails. The process imbues the recipient with the power to wield the spell. Perhaps at will, perhaps once per day, perhaps once per finger. Protection spells in particular could be made ongoing through this process.

The empowerment of the fingernails wains over time as the fingernails grow out and the text is gradually destroyed. However legends tell of certain masters who take great care to grow their fingernails to extraordinary lengths in order to preserve the enchantments. It’s rumored that some sorcerers have learned to grow their nails so long that multiple spells can be imprinted on them, though attempting to contain such power is a sure path to insanity.

Photo from the Telegraph

This technique can also be used as a punishment, by imprinting curses on the fingernails of those who have offended the order. The curse cannot be dispelled by normal means and remains in effect until the nails grow out.

Or when they are pulled from the fingers. Or the fingers are removed.

Imprinted nails could add a delightfully macabre way to add magic to your game.

Photo from GlitterFingersss


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Snap Shots

I had a few real-world-to-gaming thoughts that I wanted to share today.

These came to me around 6 a.m. this morning after I ran out the front door, barefoot, into the snow, and started shooting my air pistol at the raccoon on my roof who was trying to break into my attic.


Welcome to Ohio.

After I’d calmed down and warmed my feet back up, in an effort to not curse like a sailor and wake up my kids, I started thinking about the encounter in gaming terms. I was figuring up my bonuses and penalties. On the plus side I have a reasonable base skill with a pistol, the target was at short range, and I had surprise.

However the light was poor, the target was small, I had taken a move action, the air gun has no accuracy bonus, I sure as hell didn’t take a round to aim, and it was the very definition of a snap shot.

My Rate of Fire was two shots before the raccoon took its own move action to run over the peak of the roof and broke line-of-sight. I know I came close, I heard one BB ricochet off the gutter the thing was next to, but I don’t think I actually hit the furry raider.

My conclusion, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has gone hunting, is that penalties stack up fast. I’m a passably good shot at the range. If I have daylight, a stationary target, and a chance to aim I can reliably hit something smaller than a raccoon at several times the distance we were at this morning. But change a few factors and it all goes through the floor.

I might be a little more understanding the next time I’m playing GURPS and I can’t hit anything during a running gun battle.


The other thing I realized is that, as gamers, we take it for granted that we will know the results of an attack. The players roll the dice, the GM tells us if we hit or not, then the players roll the damage and know how hard they hit the target.

Reality isn’t like that. I know I missed once, but I have no idea if the other shot hit or not and if it did hit I don’t know where. I’ve read similar things in accounts from combat zones. If a soldier has a clear view of his or her target, chances are they know what happens after they pull the trigger. But if the soldier is under fire, the target has cover, or it is night, there is a good chance the soldier will not know if they hit or not, let alone how injured their target is.

This is one of those areas where we defer to ease of play over semblance of realism. As a GM I have enough to handle. I don’t want to be rolling for my players too. As a player I want to be making the rolls. I want the illusion that my hand guiding the random number generator makes a difference.

But maybe, just once, it would be fun to try a game where the GM handles all the combat. The GM rolls the players’ To Hit rolls and their damage. If there are any mitigating circumstances the players would have to roll perception checks to figure out if they hit their target and how much damage they did.

The novelty would wear off fast, but for one game session it might add an interesting element of tension.

In the meantime, I have plans to make for my fuzzy adversary. I think I’ll prepare a little surprise for him, maybe something out of Grimtooth’s guides.


I better stop him soon, before he has a chance to call in Groot.


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Musings on Shields and Power Creep

Our go-to OSR game has become Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and it’s been a delightful romp back into the early days of the game.  The dark nature of Lamentations also sits well with a bunch of veteran Call of Cthulhu players like ourselves.  We’ve made a few tweaks to the rules, it wouldn’t be a proper old school game if we didn’t fiddle under the hood, but for the most part we’ve stuck close to the rules as written.

This also means that this is as close to a Basic edition Dungeons & Dragons game that I have been part of since the early 80’s.  I started with the Basic and Expert sets but transitioned to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons within a couple years and didn’t look back until the Old School Renaissance began.  Now with the benefit of hindsight it’s interesting to see how the game’s evolution in some areas had unexpected consequences in other areas.  In this specific case I’m going to talk about shields.

From the classic image of knights in shining armor, to viking raiders, to the artwork of original D&D, the image of fighters and clerics has included shields.  Yet as ubiquitous as the shield is in imagery, it’s a piece of equipment that has always seemed underpowered in AD&D.

Consider what you’re trading off for a measly +1 to your armor class.  That second hand could be used to hold a light source or allow you to probe for traps with a 10′ pole.  Or you could carry a second weapon, especially if you’re playing a ranger.  Or you could choose to wield a great sword, spear, or pole arm and pick up the extra damage and weapon reach.

Conversely, how much benefit does the shield give you?  The value of the +1 AC pales against the to-hit bonuses based on high strength scores, weapon specialization, and double-specialization.  A fighter with 17 Strength and double-specialization will get far more benefit using a bastard sword than a weapon and shield combination.  This imbalance is further widened by the treasure found in many official adventures, where +1 weapons appear with such frequency that they lose all sense of wonder.  At the same time, magical shields were rare in the published adventures.  I suspect that this imbalance is related to the number of creatures that require magic weapons to hit, which appear with greater frequency as players level up, making magic weapons a de facto necessity.

This deficiency never sat well with me.  It’s at odds with both the imagery of a fighter and the real life benefits of carrying a shield.  Then I joined the Society for Creative Anachronism and took up fighting and gained an even greater appreciation for shields.  The result was various house rules to “fix” the problem.

The most successful solution I came up with was a proficiency in shield use that allowed a fighter or cleric to forgo their +1 AC in favor of a parrying maneuver with the shield.  The number of parries was based on the size of the shield; one for bucklers, two for regular shields, and three for war shields.  It wasn’t perfect, but it did restore value to using a shield.

What I never understood was why the problem exists, until I got back to basics with Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  Strip away weapon specialization, make strength bonuses less common, and make magical weapons with to-hit bonuses truly rare treasures.  Suddenly a +1 to AC becomes valuable again.  Add the combat rules specific to Lamentations, where only fighters improve their to-hit chances, and it drives home the value of any AC bonus you can get.

I suspect that a lot of the power creep introduced in AD&D was intended to close the power gap between mid-level fighters and magic users by helping fighters shine more in the front line of battle.  But by focusing heavily on offense the iconic tools of the armored knight’s defense were short changed.

With a better understanding of how the imbalance came about it’s easier to inject value back to the shield through adventure design.  It’s also an excellent demonstration of how seemingly small changes can build up and have unexpected consequences.

Am I the only one who obsesses about shields?   Have you found other ways to make them more valuable in your games?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

My old, faithful friend.

My old and faithful friend.


Posted by on November 5, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming


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